John Cherry on no-till and soil health

"Soil is just the most important thing we have on the farm"

John Cherry is part of the family behind the no-till show, Groundswell. He's also taking part in the Anglia Farmers field lab on terminating cover crops without glyphosate.

He farms with his brother Paul, at Weston Park Farms in Hertfordshire. They took over the management of the farm,  in 1984, after coming out of university. Several decades later, the Cherry’s now practice zero tillage across their 2500 acres of chalky boulder clay. 

No-till has it's controversies, but John is finding the system has had plenty of benefits for his farm. He sat down with us to discuss the farms transformation over the years.

Why were you interested in soils?

It is just the most important thing we have on the farm.

Why min-till?

When we started we used to burn our stubble, then we went back to ploughing. And then twenty years ago, we went mi-till.  

For us min-till was a big improvement on ploughing. Ploughing didn’t seem to work; the top two inches of soil is where all the life is and ploughing seemed to burying that. We always got a heavy nitrogen rush from oxidising organic matter when the top two inches of soil died. But, this oxidising rush didn’t seem to bring many long-term benefits for the soil.

Min-till seemed to be an improvement in that regard, it was cheaper and in those days, there were lots of chemicals to deal with the weeds – so it worked for us.

What’s changed since going no-till?

We have been completely no-till for only six or seven years. 2011 was the first harvest where we were a 100% no-till.

The challenge for us was to find the perfect rotation – so we’ve been fiddling around trying to get that right. Rotation is key. Since we’ve gone no-til, we’ve discovered we’ve got to do a lot more with our rotation but we still haven’t worked out how to do it.

We’re doing a lot more spring crops, in the past it was always quite tricky when we were cultivating because the land would get wet. However, with the no-till system and cover crops, we can get on in the spring without much trouble. We get them (spring crops) established well, even if they don’t necessary yield as spectacularly as the winter ones. For us, spring cropping is good for holding back blackgrass and easing pressure on the system.

What are the benefits of no-till farming?

There are endless benefits in terms of no-til. One of these is infiltration, when it rains the water goes into the ground and stays there which is valuable if you’re trying to prevent flooding. It’s also useful if you’ve had a dry spell - like we had this spring – what little rain sinks in to the ground and the organic matter hangs onto it.

From the wildlife point of view there is no comparison! We used to leave little skylark nesting areas but we don’t bother doing that now, we’ve got far more skylarks than we had before. We’ve got huge great worms, the size of your little finger, and then of course all the predators that eat them like hedgehogs and badgers.

How have your chemical and fertiliser uses changed since going no-till?

In my life, I try to cut spraying anyway, so our spray bill is half, or less, of what it was six or seven years ago but we’ve probably got a few more weeds.  

Our fertiliser use hasn’t quite halved but it is quite a bit smaller than it was. We haven’t employed any phosphate or potash fertiliser since we’ve been no-tilling and the figures (amount of phosphate or potash in the soil) are static or getting better - so quite a saving there. We continue to put a bit of sulphur on as well as nitrogen; our nitrogen bill has gone down a lot and I’m hoping, one day, to put none on at all.

How do you get rid of cover crops when it’s time to drill your cash crop?

We tend to drill through the cover crops and then spray them off with glyphosate afterwards which isn’t 100% successful and can be a bit of a problem in the spring. We’d like to stop using glyphosate altogether though at the moment we’d be a bit stuck without it. I’m hoping we can work out a way of not needing it and carrying on being no-till.

I’m part of the Innovative Farming group: ‘Getting rid of cover crops without glyphosate’.

How has being no-till affected your Soil Organic Matter (SOM)?

We have run tests that seem to suggest that our SOM levels have doubled since going no-til. You can tell by looking at it, smelling it, the colour of it,  it’s just an absolute joy. The soil is so much kinder which is what you’d expect.

Tell us more about Groundswell, the new summer farming show you're running focusing on no-till farming?

It’s peer to peer sharing ideas. The idea of Groundswell was to have the range of no-till machines in the field - at the same time - working side by side. We get some top-class speakers from around the world, because it’s not a matter of just stopping ploughing, there’s a whole new way of looking at life. You must be in tune with nature and, as a farmer, re-think everything you do.

About the trial

John will be comparing different methods of cover crop destruction. Cover crops have been planted this autumn, and will be destroyed in the spring.

Find out more about the cover crop termination field lab >

Field lab perspectives: Hear from other Innovative Farmers

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